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Mantell Associates Network: Q&A with Sameer Agarwal

As part of the Mantell Associates Network podcast earlier this year, CEO Alessandro Mantell spoke with Sameer Agarwal.

As part of the Mantell Associates Network podcast earlier this year, CEO Alessandro Mantell spoke with Sameer Agarwal who is Chief Executive Officer at CSA Healthcare GmbH and also Non-Executive Director of Sintetica. He is a pharma leader with 30 years of global experience. He has headed global pharma businesses in USA, China & rest of Asia, Europe, Russia and South America, covering key product types including oncology, biosimilars, pain management, anaesthesia, anti-infective and critical care. Sameer Agarwal is also experienced in business development, IP, regulatory, pharmaceutical analysis and bioequivalence studies.

Alessandro Mantell: Hello, thank you all for tuning in to episode 6 of Mantell Associates Network. I am joined here today by Sameer Agarwal who is CEO and Managing Partner at CSA Healthcare in Germany. As an organisation are a consultancy business that focus not only on corporate strategy, portfolio strategy, mergers and acquisitions but also licencing across pharmaceutical and life sciences which focuses on Europe and the US. Sameer is not only CEO of CSA Healthcare he is also Non-Executive Director of Sintetica based in Switzerland which focuses on the innovation of Global Pharma and products for injectable products within the industry. Sameer is someone that I have known now for just over 2 years and he has over 30 years experience in this field. So Sameer before we get started, thank you so much for coming onto the show. The idea of the podcast is to add as much value to leaders and anyone across the industry as possible. How is everything going for you, talk us through your life since COVID-19, being the CEO of a management consultancy and the board of another business. What’s it like at home, what’s it like at work and what does your average day look like?   

Sameer Agarwal: First of all, thank you very much Alessandro for the invite, it is lovely chatting with you through this new medium.  In respect to your questions, these are very interesting times. I would not say these are challenging times, I would say these are very interesting times. I personally have figured out a lot of new possibilities, a lot of positives, there are also so many challenges. In respect to my family, our client base of CSA Healthcare and you mentioned Sintetica where I am a board member, all of the employees at Sintetica and Management team are not stressed, everything is going great! 

Alessandro Mantell: Great, you mentioned interesting, day to day what is it like?  

Sameer Agarwal: As you know, before the pandemic we were rushing from one meeting to another altogether within the city or in our office, from one meeting room to the other and then we were extensively travelling to our clients, to prospective clients but now it is totally different. Sometimes we have to talk on the phone, or social media or like today, we are talking on zoom. This also gives us a lot of flexibility, I have personally found that it has given me and my team a lot of time for more introspection, better planning, and realigning our strategies. There has been a lull period of business but business hasn’t stopped, maybe later in the conversation I will tell you how I found some of the companies in Pharma and Healthcare are working even more than usual right now. On a personal front as well, I have been able to spend more time on my health and I mentioned to you separately I tried to cut my hair and this is the result. So I have done a few things to reinvent myself. 

Alessandro Mantell: Amazing, what I liked about what you said there is about the planning side. Having time to work on strategy, planning, this is a common trend I am seeing across leaders in the Pharmaceutical Industry. I mean as a whole a lot of that was personal and business. How has everything been going in terms of a business front for you, for CSA, for Sintetica since COVID-19 and how has it impacted you as a whole? 

Sameer Agarwal: I will divide my answer into CSA Healthcare and Sintetica. In respect to CSA Healthcare and me, being a management consultancy firm, there have been challenging times for us. For example, getting new business because some of our clients or prospective clients are passing through tough times or they would like to focus on certain areas to keep business running instead of newer business. But then on the positive side it gave us time to introspect and plan. For many of our clients, CSA Healthcare Clients, these have been very exciting times because we have been able to see potential and newer opportunities emerging through these unfortunate COVID related situations. Overall it is very sad passing through this pandemic but this has led to some opportunities in a positive way for my industry and that’s where some of our clients are doing really well. On the other side, for example, some clients, one particular client wanted to set up business in Europe and we were helping them to set up from scratch. However, they decided to suspend the business development because they would rather focus on existing business.

Now talking about Sintetica, they are a great company by the way, they are a 100 Swiss Francs Company, they have been suppliers of very high quality products that are used in ICU, intensive care and critical care. In this period, they have been flooded with more orders, more requirements because everybody is stocking up and I would say planning for better care in the ICU and critical care settings in hospitals. So SinteticaI think have personally done great, they have had more production than usual and that was not easy, that was very challenging for them. Keeping the employees safe and at the same time ensuring the quality of product aas you can’t have too many people in the facility as well so it is a mixed bag I would say. What I would say about the Pharma industry, it is electively good. 

Alessandro Mantell: Absolutely and you said about obviously horrible times that we are in with COVID-19 but I love the wording of opportunity. It has presented an opportunity for innovation within businesses right now and it’s crazy that your business has had higher production during this time period then it was having before. It is a testament not only to how the business has adapted but also changes that you have had to make. I guess a good question for you would be, what changes have you personally had to make or the businesses that you’re representing have had to make during this time period to adapt to COVID-19? 

Sameer Agarwal: Not only for CSA but for most of our clients, one of the big changes that has happened is more online meetings, working from home and less travel. One other very interesting thing that has happened was that some of our clients were already looking at digital as a major platform for their future growth as well as their strategy. Digital means different things to different people but in this covid pandemic people have realised that this is really the right approach and there is more focus on digital platforms. Whether it is only about meetings through digital platforms or managing the data of companies or topics, explaining your product to potential customers whether they are Doctors or Pharmacists or Nurses or anybody else. These are three or four major topics that have emerged and with CSA we have also focused on some of these online platform and working from remote locations. 

Alessandro Mantell: Incredible, I will be completely honest, at Mantell Associates we had all kinds of facilities to work remotely but we were still based in the office in Central London. Having everything that has happened in the pandemic, like you and like your businesses, we have not done phenomenally well but we have maintained a substantial amount of business. We have been fortunate enough to have brilliant clients and bring in new business, working from home has definitely been effective. We have adapted by what you called, digital methods to that situation and it’s amazing to hear that you guys are doing it as well, both businesses. Something that is more personal in a way, you are a leader in the Pharmaceutical Industry. I know I am a leader in a Headhunting Firm but when COVID-19 first happened, it was challenging, it was difficult, mentally and also in terms of business. You go from being in a busy office to sitting at home and it was a different time period. Over time, I’d like to say I have adapted better, I am not there yet but definitely better, with being a Leader in the Pharmaceutical Company how have you adapted in general. Not only to manage your staff but in general and how have you found it? 

Sameer Agarwal: I think especially in the Pharmaceutical Industry there are two or three major topics. CSA Healthcare is a management consultancy firm so I will talk about that but for the Pharmaceutical Industry it is a little bit more challenging as you have said. The Pharmaceutical Industry is dealing with the lives of patients, we are producing products which are required to have very high quality, they are life saving medicines and they have in that sense serve impact. So working from home is one thing but managing the quality from a remote location is almost impossible and that is why many companies have had different kinds of strategies to pass through this process. First of all, I was saying as well that digital platforms had alarge effect in this period and people are  getting more and more adapted to it. One outstanding thing that has happened is that, over all most of the employees in the Pharma Industry, I hear a lot from my clients, is that most of our employees have reacted positively. I would put them in the category of being COVID Warriors actually because they have really stuck their neck out and they have gone beyond their call of duty. For example, I know some of the Pharmaceutical Companies have worked in two shifts, not in one shift. That means they had to recruit more employees. Instead of sending them home,  some of these companies have made special arrangements for housing employees. I’m talking about Europe and the US. They have made arrangements for them  to stayat manufacturing sites or nearby hotels, these were especially hired for this purpose so that these employees didn’t  need to go home. So they work for 15 days and then they are given 15 days off after and pass through the required quarantine as per the local requirements. 

Some companies have adapted in the sense that they figured out what is going to cause problems with respect to COVID-19. Sintetica especially, decided not to run their canteen in their facilities. They made alternative arrangements so that people could have their meals. This was quite painful for the company because they wanted to bring people together not separate them. That is what brings the sense of team, togetherness etc and all that was effective but again having said that the employees created a very positive situation by their hard work. Some companies also, I guess this is the new normal, didn’t have any visitors in this duration. You could only have online meetings, all of the employees that are working are maintaining a social distance or whatever the local requirements are. However there were no externa people visiting the site, ensuring that there was no infection coming in. So a lot of things were put in place but one sentence that I would like to repeat here, I was not pleasantly surprised or surprised. I was just so happy to see what I thought would happen, employees reacting in a positive way. They took it as a responsibility that they have to give back to society and I think that is amazing.

Alessandro Mantell: Absolutely and we have seen so many different stories. I love the part about the ‘Corona Warrior,’ In this time period you have a lot of people, plus a lot of different industries, and my heart goes out to them, people  who are off work or furloughed or companies that can’t operate, whether it is transportation, different areas where they have had to take time off. Although that might be a nightmare being in lockdown and not working it also has its benefits. Whereas the pharmaceutical industry has definitely not had that and they have had to stick together and businesses have had to come together. It is amazing to hear that CSA Healthcare and Sintetica have both done that as well along with many other businesses which is phenomenal. It has created a togetherness across the space as a whole, not just companies but the space as a whole which is amazing.
From the standpoint of leadership, a lot of the listeners that we have had and who are reaching out are leaders, one question I have asked everyone that has come on is the aspect of being in control of your work. You are a CEO and I am a Managing Director of a company. I don’t deem myself as a micro-manager or a control freak but if you don’t understand what is going on in your company then you shouldn’t have one. You need to be a bit in control and during COVID-19, like you said earlier, working remotely is almost impossible to maintain the same level of quality. So how have you managed and coped with having to accept in part that you are not going to be as in control as before?  

Sameer Agarwal: This was the time where I realised those companies that did not work in a micromanagement style did very well. I am very lucky to have been trained like that. I can’t say everything about Sintetica because I am just an Non-Executive Board member, I don’t run that company but I would like to give their example. They also created a second line management team. This COVID-19 pandemic did not impact their business massively because all these companies had excellent second lines and third lines. Sometimes the CEO was not on the location but the others were and they were from the second line management, they managed so well. This was because they were used to doing it day to day and they were given the freedom to make decisions. Of course every company has their ways of cascading the responsibilities as well as decision making, this worked very well.

To summarise, for many of these companies, this pandemic did not impact beyond this point, because they were already in a good position. This actually reminds me of an article and video I saw. A CEO, from a public health background, said last year that the world is not ready for a Pandemic, today I think how true it was but some companies were ready for it in the sense of how to manage their business. I guess where we have a lot to learn is, how to spruce up our healthcare systems etc but I would say the Pharma companies were able to manage it well. 

Alessandro Mantell: Absolutely, for you and more specifically as well CSA Healthcare, how have you found it, or coped with everything since COVID-19 for that part of the business area. From working from home, managing the business, how has that been for you? 

Sameer Agarwal: CSA being a managing consultancy firm, existing business was not impacted, we did pretty well as we knew our clients. Our clients had a lot of confidence in us and we could manage very well through video calls and regular telephone calls. We don’t do any primary research where we go and visit doctors or patients and collect data so that wasn’t a problem in any case. But what has been challenging and still is, is finding new business in a managing consultancy because of the reasons I elaborated on earlier. But mostly because, unless a new client sees you and you spend some time together with them in a good way, you can’t really convince them that you are. I am not saying that new businesses are not coming in, it is but those are small businesses.

I guess one of the companies that has gained the most, I am just guessing, is Microsoft because a lot of companies are using Microsoft teams. I was very intrigued to read what the Microsoft CEO said. He said switching from the office set up to working from home will be replacing one domain with another. He said he feels that increasing productivity from working from home comes at the price of burning the social capital. He said when we have physical meetings with people,  two minutes before the meeting and two minutes after the meeting we are talking to the person next to us, this gives us an important ‘touch’ and feel and without the efficiency from working from home you cannot achieve that. To come back to the question you were asking me, that is what is missing for us right now, I guess that is missing for everyone, you as well! I know I have spoken to you many times and you are a great networker and for great networks, personal meetings are very important, right? 

Alessandro Mantell: 100%, it has been really really hard with all of this to have human contact which is why I probably subconsciously wanted to develop a podcast more, to have more interaction with more people in the industry and talk. It is definitely a big big issue. Thank you for going over everything, I have particularly loved the examples so far that you have given. About the organisation bringing in the staff for 15 days and then letting them stay in quarantine for 15 days afterwards in order to maintain the productivity, that has been one great example of meeting demands in a very difficult time period. I guess another thing that you touched upon with staff is the idea around the canteen but what support are you as a leader,  you at CSA and Sintetica giving your staff during this time period to help them through?

Sameer Agarwal: One thing that is paramount for all of us is the safety of all of our employees and us. This is something that all of us are ensuring, there are no shortcuts that are being taken to get business, in the sense that there are government guidelines to stay safe and not get infected or pass on the infection. So we are not taking any shortcuts and we are not allowing any shortcuts, even if that means losing some business because at this stage it is more important to show our company compassion, we owe it to our employees that they are safe. So this is paramount for all of us and we are doing whatever is necessary, whether it involves working from home, we have asked and many of our clients have asked their employees who can actually manage working from home. Some employees cannot manage working from home because they have to do physical work or experiments or moving machinery for example. But support functions can work from home, people who are working more with documents or knowledge instead of working in the laboratory or working with machinery so that is what we have done.

In the case of management consultancy as you know we are working mostly with clients and not in labs or with machinery so for all of us at CSA we are working from home and we are ensuring proper social distancing is maintained. We have ensured that all concerned have the right kind of tools so they do not have to spend any money to download something, whether it be official platforms, or digital platforms which are needed. We have provided support for that and our clients have also done that. Regular medical check ups have always been done but right now we have also focused more on that, to make sure that everybody is safe and healthy. So everything like that, I would say that everybody is in the same boat, we are all working together and understanding each other, why a particular thing is happening. The other thing is that we did not have to ask anybody to go home in the sense of furlough or redundancies, I think that we have been very lucky with God’s grace that our industry has not suffered that. 

Alessandro Mantell: It also shows that you are doing the social distancing correctly and you are looking after yours correctly as well. If no one is catching it or if no one is getting it, it means that the businesses you are representing are managing that situation really well. It’s apparent that the demands and obstacles that you have had, you have overcome and through the digital aspect and through the healthcare aspect, all of those different areas. I am intrigued to find out, you touched on it briefly, but business development and sales is the bread and butter of every company. How have you found the market in terms of business development and sales, how have you adapted, what kind of ideas have you come up with to work around everything during these times? 

Sameer Agarwal: This is really one of the most challenging areas, business development. There were various tools which we were using earlier, including multiple conferences and exhibitions, and personal meetings. So right now we are expected to work with online tools especially linkedin, linkedin is very helpful with that. We are participating in multiple online conferences or talks, on average 2 to 3 online conferences per month. We participate and give our opinion and help our clients in certain ways. We are restricted to only that right now, I guess this is not going to be permanent and as we go along it is only a matter of time  before things change back to normal. At that point in time we will go back to our mix of personal meetings as well as some of the digital platforms. If something is useful out of these digital platforms we will definitely continue to use that and they are useful! To summarise, presently these are challenging times for business development, not getting as much done as we would like to do but we are managing. 

Alessandro Mantell: Good, what you mentioned about the conferences you are not going to be the only company at the conference, businesses are there to do business and things are still pressing forward during these times which is really really positive. Being a headhunting company, I have to ask you the question as well, what is the stance of both of your companies been on recruitment during this period and how have the businesses adapted? 

Sameer Agarwal: First and foremost what we did was, we decided what were the most critical roles that we definitely needed to fill, COVID-19 or not. Those roles we still proceeded with, one change that definitely happened was that almost all meetings and interviews have been online through telephone discussions or any kind of video platform. Many of the non critical roles were put on hold for recruitment for later on. The reasons for this was, one, the uncertainty, even though I said earlier that the pharma industry was doing better than the other industries,  there is still an uncertainty and there is a reason to be abundantly cautious for these roles. So these roles were pushed back, so we decided we wouldn’t recruit  in Q2 but in Q3 instead. These roles would still definitely be filled. 

I think that because I am talking to you who is an expert in recruitment and headhunting. I would say that this is my own assessment and I have also read a lot of expert reports on that. There will be a much higher degree of recruitment in the pharma space in Q3 and Q4 compared to last year and there are multiple reasons for that. One is that is because some companies have put their current recruitment on hold and start up again in Q3 and Q4. The second is the Pharma industry will adapt itself to the new normal, the other companies will go into research or new ways to banish pandemics. Many of the projects will get realigned because companies have the same budget, so that’ll have to get reallocated. That means there will be newer areas that companies will go into or perhaps stop or put on the back burner. This will bring lots of new areas of research, commercialisation and that means I see a lot of recruitment happening. Whether it is development, regulatory, project management and things like that. I also see that a lot of recruitment that has been happening is partly commercial but mainly in business development, whether it is licencing or finding alliance partners, things like that. This is what my thinking is, with respect to what will come in the future but coming back to your question. About 25 – 30% of the roles our clients had foreseen are still getting filled but more through online meetings and the remaining are getting deferred to Q3 and Q4. 

Alessandro Mantell: That is a really interesting perspective that you have. What I can add to that is, because Mantell Associates is predominantly focused on people like yourself, Sameer, Senior individuals in organisations. A lot of the positions that we work on have been deemed as what you called critical positions within the business and with having work you are absolutely right with the regulatory RND, we have seen an increase in business on that front in the US, Europe and we are doing a lot of work as well in India. From our side, we were actually having a team meeting this morning. It has been busier than it was in Q1 for us which has been crazy and positive. But it also shows that companies, Pharmaceutical companies like the ones that you represent and clients of yours are seeing what you said earlier, the opportunity in it all and seeing that now is the time to press forward so thank you for all of that. The final thing that I would like to ask you, which is my favourite part of the show, is what piece of advice would you give to other business leaders right now. 

Sameer Agarwal: I think the most important thing is to step back, take up fresh customer segmentation and realign your strategies. There has been a lot that has been said, what would be the new normal, what is going to change. We know that there will be more change and it is very important for all of us senior management to be totally aware of that so it is time to step back, take a fresh look and realign our strategies. It is very important that the boards and the senior management try and get the right balance between the hope for the future and realism. Many people say we are dead and nothing good is going to happen, that is not a reality. That’s why I think right now it is more important for all of the firsts who are in senior management to keep this guide balance between hope and realism. At the same time we have to tread very carefully, while we are digital there are more cyber risks which are growing so we have to be careful and not get carried away by the digital side of things. We have to keep our eyes on the ball for cyber risks, there will definitely be more innovation and we have to think as senior managers how we can innovate further and move forward. The last thing I would like to say is the past, it is surely going to have ups and downs but we require more resilience.

Alessandro Mantell: Absolutely, all of the points that you have mentioned I completely agree with and the resilience part is one and resilience can be one in terms of people. For example, the leader being strong in the business, because if the leader is strong then normally it will encourage the business to be strong. Also resilient can also mean patience as well in a lot of ways because you have to grind through the difficult times that we have had. Sameer it has been an absolute pleasure having you on the show, thank you so much for everything you have said. No doubt what you have done and what you said here today will reach out to leaders and people inside the businesses that you are representing and will add value to someone, somewhere along the way. Which is what it is all about so thank you so much, it has been an absolute pleasure. Take care. 

If you missed Sameer Agarwal original podcast and would like to listen, please click here!

Mantell Associates is a specialist Pharmaceutical and Life Sciences Recruitment organisation founded by CEO Alessandro Mantell in January 2019. If you would like to find out more about how we support finding you the right talent or the right opportunity, reach out to Alessandro on alessandro@mantellassociates.com or give us a call on +44 (0)20 3778 0990.